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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The tragic death of a 26-year-old caver in Utah on Thanksgiving confirmed my long-held feeling: Cavers are nuts. Of course, many cavers likely say the same thing about climbers. When I tried caving the first time last summer, I got a lesson in perspective and humility that gave me a lot more sympathy for people who are afraid of heights.

My own fear is claustrophobia. It's not a severe case, but it's bad enough. I first noticed it years ago during a big snowstorm in the Adirondacks, with three of us crammed into a two-man tent. As the walls pressed inward, I felt discomfort rising to panic, and I had to open the door to let fresh air wash over my face—and fresh snow fill the tent. My claustrophobia has gotten slightly worse over time, and now snow caves and squeeze chimneys may give me serious concern. Sometimes on a cold night, with my mummy bag zipped up tight, I'll wake and go into a panic, grasping for the zipper.

I wasn't a prime candidate for caving.

Yet I'd always wanted to try it. I loved the various tourist caves I'd visited—no problem for me in those vast chambers. And if it weren't for my claustrophobia, I knew I'd love caving: the climbing aspect, the feeling of exploration, the strange geologic forms. It was all me. And so when my wife and I visited friends in southwest England last summer, and they offered to take us into a famous local cave, I had to sign on.

People have been exploring Swildon's Hole for more than a century. It's the biggest known cave in the Mendip Hills. The rock inside is polished smooth from thousands of hands and boots, and the floor is clear of obstacles. Our host, a friend and local caver named Steve Cosh, had been inside Swildon's dozens of times. He used to lead youth groups through the cave (we borrowed our headlamps, helmets, wellington boots, and spiffy jumpsuits from his old boss). Swildon's has some serious caving, including many underwater passages, but we weren't going that far. How bad it could be?

Pretty freakin bad. Swildon's has a tiny hut atop its entrance, which is like a manhole with a short ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, the passage turns horizontal and narrows to the point where you have to squirm on your back or stomach. I was third in our party of five, and as soon as I got into the narrows, the old familiar panic began to rise. I squirmed back again, bumping into the feet of a friend, which only made it worse. I've got to get OUT! I shouted. Back on top, I told the others to go ahead. I might or might not follow.

After a moment, I decided to try again. Going last helped. I could still see a glimmer of daylight as I shimmied through that initial passage, and I rationalized that I could always escape, with no one to block my way, if things got bad. My wife and friends were just ahead, encouraging me to follow. The passage was wider now, and I could scurry along on my feet, ducking under the ceiling. But then it narrowed past crawling size again—mandatory belly or back scraping. It was only 10 or 15 feet, and I could hear Steve talking to me from the other side. "Once you're through this one, it gets bigger for quite some time," he said, as if talking to a 14-year-old from one of his hoods in the woods programs. "Just give it a try. If you don't like it, you can go back out."

I was ready to go back out. But I also really wanted to continue. I narrowed my focus to the wall beside me, to the rivulets of water on the limestone, the strange knobs and tendrils of rock. Slowly, I felt my breathing slow, the panicky feeling subside. I decided to go for it. I squirmed through to Steve, and he smiled and pointed the way ahead. "No way," I said. "You go first—I've got to be last in line.

We were underground nearly two hours, exploring Swildon's upper passages. We clambered up and down drop-offs and through streams running along the floor. We climbed down and then back up a eight-foot waterfall. We had to boulder up through a hole named the Toilet Bowl. It was fascinating and beautiful, and at times even fun. My claustrophobia never got too severe after the initial panics, but it was always there, just under the surface, ready to rear up and smother me. I was glad to have entered Swildon's, but I was also very glad to get out.

Walking back to the car, Chris, my wife, was hopping with enthusiasm. She had loved it, couldn't wait to go again. "You're on your own, honey," I told her. Once was enough for me.

At times, I've been known to grow impatient with gripped climbers or with friends who are spooked by heights on a mountain scramble. What is wrong with them? I'll think. But now that I've felt a little taste of what they must be feeling, I hope I remember it the next time I'm with an acrophobe. Neither claustrophia nor acrophobia is an irrational fear, after all. And, of the two, acrophobia has more power to preserve one's life. But caving still seems nuts to me. Get me back to the airy perils of cliffs and ice falls.

In the photo: Yup, that's me, smiling for the camera, but not because I'm enjoying myself. OK, maybe just a little.... Photo by Steve Cosh 


Friday, December 18, 2009

Probably Not the Best Screw


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Never Stop Litigating

I just had to laugh when I heard the North Face was suing an upstart company in the Midwest that calls itself the South Butt and sells clothing with parody logos and slogans ("Never Stop Relaxing"). A very similar scenario unfolded about a decade ago when I was running Rock & Ice.

The old Franklin Climbing company had been running a series of full-page ads featuring portraits of interesting climbers posing against a white backdrop. The ads were simple and sharp, and we liked having them in the mag. In early 1999, the company sent us a particularly funny one: a photo of a baby boy sitting on the floor and peering into the front side of his diaper, with the tiny tagline "Never Stop Explorin.' " We thought it was harmless and cute, and if we thought about it at all (which I doubt), we expected the North Face would laugh along.

Uh-uh. Shortly after the ad appeared, I had to take a call from the company's CEO—the CEO, for cripe's sake—who said he was suing Franklin and that we'd better stop running that ad immediately or he'd sue us too. I groveled a bit (hey, we needed the North Face's advertising money more than we needed a freedom-of-speech case), and the problem went away. The Franklins' problems with TNF eased, too, although probably not as quickly.

This time, though, the legal action may have backfired for TNF. In the age of viral information, the North Face just looks like a bully, and the South Butt had more than 4,400 fans on its Facebook page this morning. They're undoubtedly selling loads more clothes than they ever expected, though I doubt they were prepared for the onslaught of orders.

I also doubt the South Butt will be in business for long. The Franklin incident seemed ridiculous to everyone but TNF, but in this instance I'd say the North Face actually has a very strong case—I mean, South Butt is trying to sell its clothes primarily by trashing the TNF brand. That's not right. But for the North Face, will winning in court mean losing with the public? 


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lacelle Avalanche Video Analysis

Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, prepared this excellent video analysis and reconstruction of the avalanche accident that claimed the life of the great Canadian ice climber Guy Lacelle last Thursday in Montana's Hyalite Canyon. This tragic incident and Doug's timely video are sobering reminders of the dangers that lurk in seemingly innocuous terrain. You just can never let down your guard—ever.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Nordic Skating

The December issue of 5280 has my story about three new "adrenaline" sports to try in Colorado this winter. Of the three, by far the most intriguing to me is Nordic skating, combining the long blades of speed skaters with cross-country ski boots and bindings for long-distance cruising on ice. Although few people in Colorado have even heard of Nordic skating, it's big in New England, where Vermont-based Nordic Skater sells and rents the gear, starting as low as $89 for skates and bindings. (Most cross-country skiers already own the necessary boots.) As a kid in Maine, I skated along winding streams to connect chains of frozen ponds, and when I talked to Jamie Hess, owner of Nordic Skater, I was pleased to hear that people still skate up the Royal River near my hometown. There's nothing quite like speeding over bumpy ice along a twisting creek, each bend bringing a new revelation. I can't wait to try it again.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

National Geo Adventure Calls It Quits

The December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure will be the last one, another victim of the Great Recession and the changing tides—the tsunami—affecting print journalism. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. Since its launch in 1999 under editor John Rasmus, the magazine has balanced superb reporting—I've got The New Age of Adventure collection by my bedside—with massive amounts of trip and equipment service material, and it was backed by the mighty National Geographic Society. I didn't do much work for the magazine, but I always enjoyed my dealings with its editors, especially Cliff Ransom and former editors Jim Meigs and James Vlahos. Steve Casimiro, the magazine's peripatetic West Coast editor, has just published a good report and reflection on his magazine's demise at his Adventure Life blog. Good luck to everyone.


Off Route in Nepal

Is it just me, or does it seem misguided that Nepal's cabinet ministers are staging a meeting at Everest base camp to call attention to global warming's threat to the Himalaya? The ministers have flown to Lukla and soon will continue by air to base camp. That's X number of helicopter flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, plus Y flights to Everest base camp, plus Z return flights, all adding up to a nasty output of carbon emissions. The threats to Nepalese mountain communities are real, but is flying around the Himalaya the best way to publicize them?


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Deep Water Reservoir-ing

Now this looks like fun...

Deep-water soloing above Lake Powell. Photos by Rachel Kemble (upper left, courtesy of Josh Thompson) and Greg D., used with permission. See Mountain Project for more pics, including some enticing walls with not-so-soft landings.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Colorado MoJo

I've launched a new website that I invite you to explore. The Colorado Mountain Journal exclusively covers human-powered mountain sports. All Colorado. Mostly backcountry. I created it to provide news and a bit of inspiration for the sports I enjoy most—climbing, backcountry skiing, hiking, and trail running—in ways I couldn't finding anywhere else, in print or online.

Please take a look and let me know what you think. I'd be grateful for suggestions, critiques, contributions of news and other stories from the Colorado mountains, or links from your site. Have a great holiday!


The Cougars of Climbing

Too funny. This calendar of thirty- and forty-something women of climbing is the work of Miss March: Misty Murphy. Check out all 12 Cougars of Climbing, and click below to listen to Murphy's hilarious "Cougar Climber" rap.



Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Morning Time Waster

Fantastic sequence of annotated "instructional" clips from the baddest bad climbing film of all: Vertical Limit.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Block That Cliché

"Bullet hard." Can we please retire this phrase in writing about rock climbing? I don't know much about guns and ammo, but I do know that, unless you're talking about armor-piercing rounds, most bullets are made of lead coated with copper. Neither metal is any match for granite—or even solid sandstone. I've even seen "bullet-hard ice" in ad copy. Seriously?

Now, "bulletproof rock" is an acceptable phrase. But "bullet hard" or simply "bullet"—these have got to go.

Got a favorite overworn climbing cliché? Post it in the comments.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Great Alaskan-Yukon Loop

If it were coming from anyone but Andrew Skurka, you'd dismiss the proposed "Great Alaskan-Yukon Loop" as sheer fantasy. But Skurka, whose accomplishments include a 6,875-mile trek around the American West (2007) and a 7,778-mile trek across the continent (2004-05), has the experience and determination to just-maybe pull this one off. Here's how he describes this ski-raft-hiking odyssey on his website:

"The Great Alaskan-Yukon Loop (GAYL) is a 4,500-mile wilderness adventure around the state of Alaska and the Canadian territory of Yukon that connects many of this region's most magnificent natural features, including the Alaska Range, Wrangell's, Lost Coast, Coast Range, Yukon River, Richardson Mountains, and finally the Brooks Range. The GAYL is not an official trail or route; it has never been completed, attempted, and possibly even conceived of until now; it is almost entirely off-trail and it crosses only about 10 roads for its entire length."

He continues:

"In March 2010 I will begin the GAYL in the village of Kotzebue, located on the Chukchi Sea in northwestern Alaska. I will ski south to join the historic Iditarod Trail, which I'll follow southeast into the Alaska Range. Spring will arrive as I am traversing this range, which is home to North America's tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley. Near the eastern end of this range I will begin packrafting the Copper River and its tributaries towards the ocean. After several hundred miles along the rugged Lost Coast, I will trek the historic Chilkoot Pass Trail from the Inside Passage to the Yukon River, which I will float to Dawson City. A route through the Ogilvie Mountains, down the Miner River, and through the Richardson Mountains will link me into the eastern edge of the Brooks Range, which I will finish traversing just before Fall finally succumbs to Winter again."

Mind blowing. Who knows if this is possible, or if Skurka will even find the resources to attempt it. But this sort of uncertainty is the nature of real adventure.

By the way, Skurka is looking for a better name for his project. Leave a comment with your suggestion, or you can post it directly at his website.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Alpine Briefs

Alpine Briefs 5 is live: alpine starts, a new Zion wall route, first ascents in Newfoundland, whipper videos, and much more.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Morning Mood Brightener

Mt. Shuksan,with Mt. Baker in the distance, at sunset—another astonishing aerial photo from the one-of-a-kind Pacific Northwest pilot and photographer John Scurlock.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

24 Hours of Gadd

Will Gadd will attempt to climb near-vertical ice for 24 hours straight in early January during the Ouray Ice Festival, as a benefit for the dZi Foundation. Gadd will be climbing the classic WI4 Pick O' the Vic. If he manages to complete the 150-foot route three times an hour, he'll be right around 11,000 vertical feet for the day. Think of the late-night heckling opportunities!


Friday, November 06, 2009

Rock Climbing Feat of the Year?

Yesterday, the blind Colorado climber Erik Weihenmayer climbed the Naked Edge (5.11b, 8 or 9 pitches) in Eldorado Canyon. Weihenmayer climbed with Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, and Charley Mace, a longtime friend and climbing partner. Cedar Wright filmed the ascent, so someday we'll be able to see it for ourselves.

The five main pitches of the Edge are comprised of near-vertical to overhanging sandstone, notorious for tiny holds and complex sequences. Three of pitches are 5.11, and one is a very tricky 5.10. Weihenmayer had never been on the route, yet Robinson and Wright said he only fell once or twice on each pitch, except for the final overhanging lieback and hand crack. Both men marveled at Weihenmayer's ability to quickly figure out 5.11 moves, and both said it might be the most impressive climbing feat they'd ever seen.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Not Too Big to Fail

Joe Puryear has just posted one of his superb desert trip reports (24 towers in 20 days) at SuperTopo. Buried in the post, in a caption to Joe's photo of the Cobra in the Fisher Towers, was this nugget:

"A warning to all about the Cobra: the Cobra shuddered and swayed twice while we were on it. I've never heard of or had it do that before. Fun times..."

I climbed the Cobra many years ago, but when a group of friends repeated it recently after doing nearby Ancient Arts, I stayed on the ground and took photos. One time up the Cobra was fun; twice seemed like pushing my luck. The summit is a tilted block merely balanced on a spindly neck of pebbly stone. The tower didn't shudder or sway when I climbed it, nor when my friends did it a couple of years ago. But if the Cobra is swaying now, it may be about to strike. Who will get the "last ascent?" And who will get snake-bit?

Postscript: A friend from Europe wrote after reading this item: "I feel the final sentences in your post incite people to do something which perhaps they shouldn't. Surely if the block is unstable, if it took millions of years to form in the fragile desert ecosystem, then perhaps we climbers should lead by example and call it a day." Come to think of it, he's right. To protect this cool, unique formation—to say nothing of climbers' lives—this climb ought to be "retired" for good.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Obscure Tour: Bullet

In early season, the most rewarding ice and mixed climbs often are those on the obscure tour—climbs that might not seem worth the trouble when fat ice is everywhere. Sometimes, the result is a happy discovery, as with Bullet, a short route at the foot of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. I'd never heard of anyone climbing this route since its first ascent nearly 10 years ago, but this fall, thanks to a couple of compelling photos at, Bullet has seen a flurry of attempts and ascents.

As Jack Roberts and I neared the base of the route on Sunday after the relatively short walk from Bear Lake (less than 1.5 hours), we were surprised to hear voices—two climbers were just starting the climb. We watched them complete the first pitch as we geared up, and then Jack started up after them. Bullet isn't super-inspiring from the ground: After about 50 feet of easy ice climbing, it's all gray rock above. But the climbing was much better than it looked.
After taking a brief gander at the crux of pitch one, a poorly protected lieback, Jack opted for a bulging but well-protected variation to the right. Good stuff.

The party ahead of us hadn't liked the look of the second pitch, which follows a steep corner to a leftward traverse under a big roof; the leader bailed after about 15 feet, citing a lack of pro. Attempting the first ascent, Greg Sievers had taken a 25-footer from this roof. Neither of these facts gave me much confidence as Jack handed me our jumbo rack of rock gear, but, on the other hand, I could see that Bullet suited my style. The angle was less than vertical, and tiny footholds dotted the icy rock. I'm no good on really steep routes—rock or ice—because I don't have the strength and confidence for sustained overhangs, but on good days I can stand on small holds for a long time and work out moves and protection. This was a good day, and as I moved up the corner I was able to find decent pro every few feet. Below the roof, I spent many minutes balancing on monopoints and carefully slotting tiny wired nuts and C3 cams into the ceiling. The slab below the roof was nearly blank, but I could see jugs at the far side. When I was more or less happy with the pro, I committed to the traverse and quickly but carefully dry-tooled across the slab to reach a good stance and more pro.

Every once and a while, I feel really great about a lead. Bullet required some skill, but the real key was patience and mind control—the willingness to hang in there on tiny, tenuous holds until I'd done what had to be done with the gear, and then—and only then—switch to confident but controlled aggressiveness for the short run-out to good holds. Whether it's traditional rock climbing, steep ice, or dicey aid, the best climbers seem to muster this combination of patience and aggression at will. It rarely happens for me, and it's just so satisfying when it does.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Books to Read: Banff Festival Winners

Jerry Moffatt's Revelations is the grand-prize winner at the annual Banff Book Festival. I had high hopes that Moffatt's memoir would be good, in part because it was cowritten with the very talented Niall Grimes, and now it would seem to be a must-read.

Steve House's excellent Beyond the Mountain (reviewed here, with a follow-up note here) took the prize for Mountain Literature. Sarah Garlick's climbing geology book Flakes, Jugs, and Splitters won for Mountain Exposition. And the book I'm perhaps most keen to see is The Alps: A Bird's Eye View, by Slovenian photographer Matevz Lenarcic, who captured his aerial images from an ultralight motorized glider. Other winners: The Great Polar Journey: In the Footsteps of Nansen, by Børge Ousland; The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer, by David Roberts; Royal Robbins: To be Brave—My Life, Volume One, by Royal Robbins; and In the Bear's House, by Bruce Hunter.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Morning Time Waster: 33 Years Ago on Ben Nevis

John Cunningham soloing a pastiche of routes on Ben Nevis in 1976. This understated, beautiful film was shot by Charles Grosbeck and produced by Yvon Chouinard. Watching Cunningham's speed and technique, it's easy to see why Scottish climbing and equipment were so influential on the development of modern ice climbing. Tragically, Cunningham died in 1980 when a wave swept him into the sea below the cliffs of Anglesey.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Revolver Carabiner for Glacier Travel

Andrew McLean has posted an interesting idea at his often excellent Straight Chuter blog: Carry a DMM Revolver locking carabiner instead of a pulley in your crevasse-rescue kit for glacier travel. The idea is not that the Revolver has less friction than the average pulley—McLean's thinking is that this ’biner can serve many different purposes in glacial mountaineering and skiing, while the pulley really has only one use. Gear that does double or triple duty is good gear for lightweight ascents.

I'd be wary of the pulley (and, for that matter, the gate) icing up on this carabiner, which was designed for rock climbing. But it definitely seems like a worthwhile idea to experiment with.

McLean's blog has a few other interesting posts on glacier gear, including ropes and snow anchors.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You Gotta Love Colorado

Yesterday: Just my wife and I, all by ourselves, at the mega-popular Cactus Cliff at Shelf Road; rock climbing in T-shirts (at least for a while); pale sun gleaming off the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains. The calm before the storm.

Today: A foot of snow on my deck at noon, and it's not supposed to stop snowing until tomorrow night.

Later Today: Went skiing in the nearby open space late this afternoon. Pretty sticky, nasty snow and a stiff wind in the face, but, as they often say about alpine climbing, it doesn't have to be fun to be fun. Enzo sure liked it.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Banff Photo Contest Winners

It looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings, but in fact it's Canadian Nathalie Daoust's image from Switzerland, the grand-prize winner in the 2009 Banff Mountain Photography Competition. Three of my favorites from the other winners:

Look very closely at that last one: There's a North Vancouver mountain biker suspended in a dew drop. No Photoshop involved, swears photographer Jordan Manley, just a good eye and painstaking set-up.

See all the 2009 winners at the Banff Centre website.


Friday, October 23, 2009

The Ultimate Tick List

At Rock & Ice, we once published a supplement called the Ultimate Tick List. We surveyed readers for their recommendations of the absolute best boulder problems and rock, ice, and alpine climbs in North America, and then compiled the answers into a list of 500 climbs to go at. As often happens in these surveys, the response rate wasn't as great as we'd have liked, and some geographic areas were woefully under-represented. We editors had to do some backing and filling, and mistakes were made. One climb was listed twice (under slightly different names), and somehow the short, slick, forgettable sport climb Deck Chairs on the Titanic at Table Mountain made it onto the list of the absolute best climbs in Colorado. But it was still a cool project, and readers seemed to like it. Climbers love hit lists.

Now, the excellent Mountain Project website has created a new method for generating tick lists. Using a secret algorithm that weighs star ratings and other factors, Mountain Project automatically generates a list of "The Classics" for each area it covers, whether that area is Boulder (3,201 routes in the database this morning) or the west face of the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon (20 routes). It's a slick gizmo, and it seems to work pretty well, though of course it's easy to quibble. Example: The Wasp, a 95-foot route on a small crag in Rocky Mountain National Park is picked as one of Colorado's most classic "alpine rock" routes. Really? Overall, though, Mountain Project has created a very useful tool.

I wondered if I could create a personal Ultimate Tick List by looking at Mountain Project's lists of classics at several areas where I've done a lot of climbing over the years. How many climbs would I have missed in the grades I usually climb, which top out at 5.11 on rock these days? Were there entire areas I should be moving to the top of my hit list? I looked at Eldorado Canyon in Colorado, Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire, the Moab area in Utah, Yosemite Valley, Colorado ice & mixed, and Colorado alpine rock.

Eldorado was a bust: I've already done all 20 routes on the classics list, though I'm sure I could find some hidden gems if I drilled down to the lists at individual crags or sectors. At Cathedral Ledge, I found only one climb I hadn't done, and it's a beauty: Camber, a two-pitch partly bolted route that didn't exist when I did most of my New Hampshire climbing, back in the ’80s. That's definitely worth putting on the list. I suppose I also should add the Prow, because I've only aid-climbed it. A free attempt certainly needs to be on my list. Liquid Sky (5.13b)? I don't think so. The list of 20 classics in the Moab area held two routes in Indian Creek Canyon I haven't done—nice to know about, but not worth a trip in their own right.

Yosemite Valley was more interesting. Midnight Lightning was out—I'll never get farther than fondling the starting holds on that one. But I realized I'd never done some moderate classics, like Nutcracker or Sons and Yesterday. And though I've done three El Cap routes, one of them is not the Nose. Hmmm.....

I was also surprised to see how many classic routes I still haven't done in Colorado's high mountains: the Little Bear-Blanca traverse, Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle, Syke's Sickle on Spearhead, and Pervertical Sanctuary on the Diamond. Makes me wish winter weren't coming on so I could get after this list.

On the other hand, the richest lode of undone classics I found is just about to come into season. I was astonished to see that I had never climbed almost half the classic routes on the Colorado ice and mixed list. Most of these are in southwestern Colorado, a six-hour drive from home, but that's a pretty lame excuse. So here's my goal for the 2009-2010 ice season: Finish the list. I may have to find someone to drag me up the Talisman (WI6 M6), and one or two of these routes may never come into condition this year, but the winter is long and, for the moment at least, my motivation is high.

Mountain Project's Classics lists offer a great tool for planning visits to unfamiliar areas, and you may be surprised at what you learn about old familiar crags. However, I did notice that Deck Chairs on the Titanic made the list for Table Mountain. No system is perfect.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: "Progression"

If you're the type who dismisses climbing films as amateurish assemblages of clips cobbled together with no story line and a boorish soundtrack—in a phrase: climbing porn—do yourself a favor and check out Progression, the latest film from Big Up Productions (i.e., brothers Josh and Brett Lowell plus Cooper Roberts). It will change your perception of what a climbing film can be.

Progression is a collection of mini-stories about major ascents and ground-breaking climbers—in that way, it's similar to past films of the type. But the quality of the photography, the camera angles, the storytelling, and above all the editing raise Progression to a new level, surpassing even the high bar set by previous Big Up titles. Each segment is compelling—Progression even manages to make lead-climbing competitions feel super-exciting—and the transitions are smooth. The filmmakers assume they have knowledgeable viewers, and they adhere to the storyteller's mantra: Show, don't tell. When Adam Ondra makes 18 big moves above his last pro on the second ascent of Papichulo (5.15a), the narrator doesn't have to tell us, "Look at that run-out!" and Josh Lowell doesn't. When Kevin Jorgeson's belayer fumbles with the Gri-gri just as Jorgeson is about to attempt the second ascent of the Groove (E11), the film doesn't comment. We get it.

Watching Progression, I realized this film does for hard rock climbing in the year 2008 what the American Alpine Journal (which I help edit) does for alpine and big-wall routes around the world: It selects and documents many of the best routes of the year for posterity. But Progression (along with Big Up's Dosage series of annual videos from years past) does this in a visceral way that print can never achieve. It makes me jealous of the filmmakers—imagine if it were possible to create such a work for alpine climbing each year!

Big Up is offering Progression in both DVD and downloadable forms; the download costs just $19.95 (a saving of 10 bucks), but it's a 1.8 GB file, so you need a good connection, and it doesn't come with the many extras included with the DVD. These include a long segment on Tommy Caldwell and Justen Sjong's first free ascent of Magic Mushroom on El Cap, which only gets a tease in the final cut of the film. Still, the HD download version looks great on my computer and gives me the opportunity to open the film whenever I'm bored at work.

By the way, the film has a long segment on Caldwell's super-project on El Cap's southeast face, but doesn't ever name the route. At the time, Caldwell was trying to maintain a not-too-well-kept-secret. The route is Mescalito, and Tommy and Kevin Jorgeson are back on it this fall.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday Morning Time Waster II

"Bit of a sneaky line there!"


Tuesday Morning Time Waster

"Mom, come here, there's a black guy down here!"


Friday, October 16, 2009

Total Abandon!

After several false starts due to illness and road closures, Jack Roberts and I made it to Pikes Peak yesterday and climbed the classic ice route Total Abandon. This climb forms occasionally in the fall on the right side of a dramatic granite buttress on Pikes' north face, starting about 900 feet below the 14,115-foot summit. The approach is more akin to a Chamonix cable-car lift than the usual American wilderness slog: To get to the route, you drive up the Pikes Peak toll road ($10/person), park at 13,400 feet, and follow the so-called Hero Traverse for an hour. But you have to be fast: The road doesn't open until 9 a.m. in late fall, and there's a $100 per hour fine if you don't make it down to the gate by 5 p.m.

There's also the problem of knowing if the road will even open for the day. We started calling on Monday afternoon, hoping to climb the route this week, but the toll road was closed on the upper mountain Tuesday and Wednesday because of snow and high winds. With a better forecast for Thursday, we called again Wednesday afternoon, but the staff wouldn't commit to opening the road the next day. Since we live two hours' drive away, we decided to pack both rock and ice gear, plan to arrive soon after the gate opened at 9, and hope for the best. When we arrived, we were told the road was only open to the 16-mile mark—two miles short of the Hero Traverse—but with clear skies overhead we figured they'd probably get the road open by the time we got there. And that's what happened: A ranger had blocked the road just above the parking area, but that was OK with us. We had no intention of driving to the summit.

I had never been on Pikes Peak. Although it towers 8,000 feet over Colorado Springs, the mountain seems like a bland hump from a distance. I was surprised at how beautiful and complex the peak appeared up-close. Negotiating the Hero Traverse into the north face cirque, we saw countless pink-granite buttresses and intriguing gullies. The views made me want to return in spring, when this basin is filled with corn snow, and in summer for high-altitude rock climbs.

We turned a corner and were happy to see a line of white ice on our route, deep in a dark corner. The late road opening had forced perhaps the latest alpine start I'd ever experienced—we didn't rope up until around 11:15—but the three-pitch route went smoothly: A thin ribbon of sticky ice and short mixed steps; a very steep chimney with ice on the left wall and rock on the right, made awkward because both of us wore packs; and a long, somewhat tedious escape pitch of steep snow with occasional tenuous chockstones to surmount. At nearly 14,000 feet, we were not moving quickly, but even so we were back at the car by 3 p.m. There, we found a flat tire on Jack's car.

Changing a tire at 13,400 feet in mid-October is no joy, but we still had plenty of time to spare before the 5 p.m. penalty hour would begin. Even with the flat and a stop for a repair on the way home, we were back in Boulder less than 12 hours after leaving—one of the strangest and yet most satisfying alpine days I've done in years.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Wisdom of Will

Will Gadd has been posting a fascinating series of mini-essays on training and competition at his always-excellent blog, and his "Random Training Thoughts #5: Mental is particularly interesting. This paragraph really jumped out at me, vis-à-vis my own climbing:

"Worry about the things you can control, and get them right. Don't show up with your blown-out laces about to break. Be well-fed, well-hydrated, well-dressed, etc., etc. This a really deep well to look down once you get going on it..."

So true. Basically it's piss-poor preparation equals piss-poor performance. We all know it, but how often do we look deep into that well and make the changes we ought to? Speaking specifically of competition, Gadd continues:

"You can't control other people's results, or even your own. You can only control how well you perform. If you perform well you'll get a good result, but worrying about the result is wasted energy."

I rarely train intensively for my sports, and I compete even less often, but Gadd's advice just as well to the "non-competitive" climbing I love, especially alpine climbing with its many variables. If you prepare well, make good decisions about the things you can't control (weather, snow conditions, etc.), and enjoy the climb itself more than the summit, you'll be a happy and successful climber.

But don't take my word for it. Read Will's excellent posts for yourself.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Altitude: It's More Dangerous Than You Thought

A number of years ago, I climbed from the 14,000-foot camp on Denali to the Football Field at 19,500 feet in six or seven hours. I was very well acclimatized to 14,000 feet, and I didn't feel any symptoms of acute mountain sickness other than being very tired. Yet, according to an article in the October Outside, I likely experienced some brain damage during this ascent.

Douglas Fields, a climber and neuroscientist, reported on the work of Spanish neuroradiologist Nicholás Fayed, who has studied brain scans of mountaineers returning from relatively low peaks around the world. It's long been known that high-altitude mountaineers may experience some permanent changes in their brains—and resulting loss of function—after climbing over 8,000 meters without supplementary oxygen. But Fayed and colleagues are documenting abnormalities in the brains of climbers on peaks as low as Mont Blanc (15,771 feet).

The good news? Doctors believe that proper acclimatization—averaging no more than 1,000 to 2,000 feet per day of ascent during a big climb—can prevent this kind of damage. The bad news? Few climbers have the time or patience to go that slow.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking the Tools for a Walk

The Setup:
1) The road past Brainard Lake to the Indian Peaks trailheads was open unusually late this fall.
2) Ice has already been climbed this month on Pikes Peak and in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jack Roberts, my climbing partner, had climbed near Longs Peak just a couple of days earlier.
3. Jeff Lowe had said "good mixed lines" occasionally form on the north side of Little Pawnee Peak, above Brainard Lake.
4. Snow had fallen off and on in these mountains for a couple of weeks, the perfect setup for melt-freeze autumn mixed climbing.

The Reality:
1. About a foot of snow on the ground at 11,000.
2. Almost no ice. Seems like it's been too cloudy and cold in this drainage to form ice. No melting, too much freezing.

Oh well. Sometimes you just have to go look for yourselves.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

If It's Good Enough for Steve Climber, It's Good Enough for Me

"Depending on the conditions, I wear any and all of the Archwood Flextrek packs." —Steve Climber, the outdoors' ultimate enthusiast.

OK, this clip is a year old. But it hasn't been on the Mountain World before, and it's still pretty funny. "You can dominate the landscape!"


Friday, October 09, 2009

Exaggerated Snow Reports? Say It Ain't So!

Loveland opened Wednesday with an 74-inch base and eight inches of fresh powder. A-Basin will open today, but later than scheduled because they're still digging out the chairlifts. Believe it? Then you likely also trust the resorts' regular snow reports. Dartmouth professors have proved what we already know: "Ski resorts self-report 23 percent more natural snowfall on weekends," even though "there is no such weekend effect in government precipitation data." Amusingly, the study noted that such exaggeration fell sharply last winter after people started posting real-time iPhone reports at

BTW, the part about Loveland and Arapahoe Basin opening this week is true. Colorado has had an exceptionally cold, wet fall. Really.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Department of Weenieness: Slab Division

Is it just me, or does it seem crazy that slabs—the routes that feel least secure to climb, where you might grease off at any moment, and where it's nearly guaranteed that you won't fall cleanly into empty space—are almost always protected with widely spaced bolts? Why aren't slabs better protected?

Of course there are historical reasons for this. In the old days, climbs were established on the lead, and the leader could only stop moving and hand-drill a bolt if he could find a ledge or a minuscule foothold to stand on. No wonder the bolts were far apart. Today, almost every bolted climb is established on rappel, and the only limit to the number of bolts the first ascensionist places is stinginess. Or is it? There's also a weird foreshortening effect that somehow makes bolts look closer together (from the ground) on low-angle terrain than they do on overhangs, and this works against adequate bolting on slabs. A line of bolts that would look perfectly natural on a steep limestone sport climb might look obscene on a granite slab. And it's a kinesthetic too: You tend to cover ground much quicker on slabs (once you stop quaking and start moving), and so you come up on the bolts quicker.

Still, grade for grade, most climbers are much more likely to fall from a slab climb than a vertical climb, and for historic, aesthetic, and kinesthetic reasons, they're going to fall a lot farther. It just doesn't seem right.

[Photo: Jason Kaplan/]


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Wednesday Morning Time Waster: Cross-Country Snowboarding. It's phlat!


Wednesday Morning Time Waster: Wrangell–St. Elias

If this doesn't make you want to go to Alaska, nothing will. Click here for a gorgeous narrated slide show of a 33-day tour of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park: 25 days on foot, eight days in a raft. Zero days on trails. Zero non-ranger visitors encountered. Incredible photos.

Anyone know Gnarwhale, who posted this on Teton Gravity Research, or the other folks in these photos? I'd like to give credit where it's due. This is one of the best trip reports I've ever seen online. Tip of the hat to Fitz Cahall for pointing it out. Update: According to a comment below, Gnarwhale is Jim Harris from Salt Lake City.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Events You'll Never See in the USA

The Pro BASE World Cup: BASE jumping for distance and speed. Uh-huh. Picture this in Yosemite Valley. Not gonna happen.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Book News: Desert Towers, Kor, Skinner, and More

Steve "Crusher" Bartlett came by the other day to show me the layout of a super-cool new book he's doing on the desert towers of the Colorado Plateau. It's a collection of Crusher's research and personal anecdotes, plus other people's stories. (He's reproducing my 1997 story from Rock & Ice about tower routes in Utah's Monument Basin; that's me belaying Dave Goldstein on the cover, during a hammerless ascent of the Shark's Fin's wicked-steep northeast arête.) The coolest thing about Crusher's book, which he expects to have out in early 2010 (Sharp End Books), is the wealth of historical photos he's managed to dig up. I found a few old familiar shots of Layton Kor and the like, but I'd never seen dozens and dozens of the other images in the coffee-table book.

The digging Crusher has done is a huge service to fans of climbing history, and it makes me wonder what other great photos from important American climbing areas are languishing in elderly climbers' closets, the Kodachrome slides slowly fading. Hopefully, other climber-authors will be as inspired as Crusher has been to root out these gems before they're lost forever.

A couple of other interesting books in the works: Stewart Green and Cameron Burns are both working on Layton Kor books (a scrapbook of Kor stories and a biography—amazing there hasn't been one yet), and Joe Josephson is writing a book about Todd Skinner.

The Stone Masters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, with photos by Dean Fidelman and text by John Long, will be available any day. Should be very good, and very popular, though I confess I'm just about over the whole Yosemite in the ’70s thing.

Finally, three esteemed Canadian authors and photographers, Chris Atkinson, Kevin McLane, and Marc Piché, are teaming up on the Alpine Canada Book Project, which will produce two books: a selected-climbs guidebook and a coffee-table book, both about Canada's finest mountain routes. Due out in 2010. Interestingly, the books are being copublished by Elaho Press and Arc'teryx, the gear and clothing maker, just as Patagonia Inc. recently published Steve House's memoir. Have we come to the point where enlisting a big corporate backer is the only way to get important climbing books published?


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Kor in Rifle

Mike Pont recently told me a fun story about the early climbing days in Rifle, Colorado, where he was part of a small crew that bolted many of the classic sport routes in the limestone canyon, back in the early 1990s. Decades earlier, Layton Kor had aid-climbed a couple of routes in the canyon—just a few of the hundreds of new routes he established throughout the American West in the 1950s and ’60s. One day, Kor was fishing for trout in Rifle Creek as Mike and Kurt Smith bolted routes in what would become the Wasteland cave. Kor strolled over to watch the two climbers blasting in bolts with a power drill. "Man," he said, "if I'd had one of those things, you guys would have nothing left!"

Kor, now 70, lives in Arizona and is suffering from kidney disease. Climbers Stewart Green and Steph Davis have organized an online effort to raise money for his deductibles and copays. The Layton Kor Climbing website is packed with great Kor photos and fun prizes for donors. Kudos for this cool effort to help out one of America's greatest rock climbers.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Morning Time-Waster: Tight Turns

Skier and helmet-cam videographer Cody Townsend was coy about the location of this amazing slot, but Steve Romeo of TetonAT identified it: the Terminal Cancer Couloir in Nevada's Ruby Mountains. Skiing Magazine posted the same clip and did a little interview with Townsend.

Q. Can you...give us some tips on how to ski a narrow shot like this?

A. When it comes to skiing a couloir fast, i.e. no mountaineer jump turning, the key is to get a little bit of slide out of the end of your turn. If you full carve slalom turn it, you'll be going out-of-control fast in a matter of moments. The little "slarve" (sliding-carve, aka McConkey Turn) at the end of your turn helps control your speed but it still allows you to keep your tips down the fall line. My last piece of advice: Be in very good shape. It was such a tiring climb and ski that my legs felt like Jet Li had used them for kicking practice once this thing was done.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

McSparseness: Find the Dark Spots on the Map. Go There.

This brilliant map, created by photographer Steve Von Worley, visually represents the density of McDonald's restaurants—all 13,000-plus of them—in the Lower 48. The bright lights of the Golden Arches sprawl across the map in constellations of human yuckiness. So where can we find American wilderness—the black holes of happiness on this map? Best to quote Von Worley himself, who writes on his blog:

"As expected, McDonald’s cluster at the population centers and hug the highway grid. East of the Mississippi, there’s wall-to-wall coverage, except for a handful of meager gaps centered on the Adirondacks, inland Maine, the Everglades, and outlying West Virginia. For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota."

Von Worley calculated that the farthest you can get from a McDonald's in the continental U.S. is in north-central South Dakota: 145 miles by car or 107 miles as the McNugget-hungry crow flies. I'll bet there's a Subway that's closer.

[Tip of the hat to Clyde Soles for pointing out this gem.]


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Link of the Week

There's a great post and discussion at Lou Dawson's Wild Snow site about skiing the 8,000-meter peaks, sparked by various media reports that American Dave Watson "skied K2" this summer. He didn't: He skied on K2, starting from about 8,350 meters on the 8,611-meter peak and descending the notorious Bottleneck on skis; Watson continued down to Camp 3 at ca. 7,250 meters, and then rappeled about 650 meters, past Camp 2 and House's Chimney, before skiing down to advanced base camp. A superb outing, but not a ski descent of K2 by almost anyone's definition.

The definition of "ski descent," and the details of what has been skied on 8,000-meter peaks, is the subject of a long and fascinating series of comments from Watson, the Swedish high-altitude skier Fredrik Ericsson (who also attempted K2 this summer), Andrew McLean, and many other experts. It's a comment trail that stands out for both the caliber of the participants and the civility of the discussion. Well worth reading.

In the photo: Dave Watson's tracks on K2, from the Bottleneck down to the Shoulder (courtesy of


Monday, September 21, 2009

Gear I'm Liking

Here are five pieces of equipment I've been using lately that have become real favorites:

Petzl Reverso 3 belay device. Clean, lightweight, and versatile—this device does it all.

Mountain Hardwear Runout climbing pants. Super-comfortable. Fit well under a harness. Look good enough to wear out to dinner—at least until you smear them with chalk and aluminum grime from your rope.

70-meter ropes. I'm mostly using a Mammut Infinity 9.5, which is incredibly burly despite its slender diameter, but the real point is how I've more or less completely switched over to 70s. A 70-meter cord weighs about 15 percent more than a 60 in the pack, and it's definitely a beast to coil. But the extra length comes in handy so often, whether it's stretching the rope on alpine routes or eliminating an extra rap line while cragging.

Black Diamond C3 cams. My go-to cams for small placements. Though these cams only have three lobes, they feel more secure than similarly sized four-cam units. I'm only using the two largest sizes (red and yellow). Must fix that.

CiloGear 45L WorkSack. Disclaimer: CiloGear is expected to start sponsoring this blog soon. But that doesn't affect my view of this 45-liter pack, which I love for its light weight, clean design, and load-carrying flexibility and comfort. I've only used the pack for backpacking and cragging so far, but there's fresh snow in the mountains above my home this morning—ice season may begin this week!


Friday, September 18, 2009

Alex Honnold: The AAC's Young Climber of the Year (Friday Morning Time Waster)

Alex Honnold will receive the American Alpine Club's Robert Hicks Bates Award for young climbers (25 and under) in October. Talk about well-deserved! At 23, Honnold already has a list of accomplishments that's broad and deep. Check out the video below for just one aspect: extremely difficult desert crack climbs.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mountain Movie Clichés

Attention filmmakers: Enough with the clichéd time-lapse scenes of clouds whipping by mountain peaks! These are usually shot at dawn or sunset, so you get an alpenglow wash across the screen along with the cloudscape. How many mountain films open this way? Far too many. Yeah, we're in a dramatic mountain setting...we get it!

Cliché No. 2: Prayer flags snapping in the breeze.

Cliché No. 3: POV down a gaping crevasse while walking across a ladder in the Khumbu Ice Fall. Move on. We're so over it.

Got a mountain-movie peeve of your own? Share it in the comments.